Team Israel: Requiem for a quixotic Olympic quest

By Bill Simons

Team Israel’s improbable and gritty Olympic run for a baseball medal ended with a heart-wrenching loss on August 3 in Yokohama, Japan. In this elimination game, the Dominican Republic, a nation that has produced many major league stars, rallied in the bottom of the ninth – scoring two runs – to defeat Israel, a country where only 1,000 people play baseball, by a score of 7-6.

Team Israel’s Olympic analytics fell short. Outscored 37-25, Israel won only one game and lost four, finishing fifth out of the six national baseball teams competing for Olympic medals. Israel opened with a tough 6-5 loss to the Republic of Korea on July 29, the result of losing starting pitcher Jon Moscot to an elbow injury in the first inning, idiosyncratic Olympic baseball rules that automatically place two runners on base at the beginning of extra innings and Israel relief pitcher Jeremy Bleich, a 34-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates front-office numbers cruncher who appeared in two Major League Baseball games back in 2018, plunking two consecutive batters in the 10th inning. For Bleich, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, the miscues hurt. 

In its second outing on July 30, Team Israel lost 8-1 to the United States, the blue and white’s sole tally the result of a fourth-inning home run by Danny Valencia, a well-traveled veteran of nine MLB seasons. Valencia remained in the groove on July 31, connecting for a three-run home run during Israel’s highwater mark, a 12-5 romp that sent Mexico packing. However, the fates reversed, and Israel suffered a humiliating 11-1 thumping in its August 1 rematch against South Korea, a game stopped at the end of seven innings under the “mercy rule.” And the August 3 loss to the Dominicans closed Team Israel’s Olympic baseball run. 

Within a few days of the Olympics closing ceremony, Eric Holtz announced his resignation as a manager of the Israel national baseball team. The stats and bullets, however, don’t even begin to capture the essence of Team Israel’s Olympic baseball experience. 

To qualify for one of the six Olympic baseball slots at the Tokyo Olympics, the rag-tag Israel team upset all conventional wisdom. It was the first time since 1976 that an Israel team had qualified for an Olympic team sport. Scraping the bottom, ranked 41st at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, underdog Israel defeated such powerhouses as South Korea, Taiwan and Cuba on the road to the Tokyo Olympics. Cuba, with its storied baseball history, bitterly charged that American ringers comprised the so-called Israeli team. 

Candor necessitates response to the Cuban charge. Few Israelis play baseball, know much about the sport or care about it. In all of Israel, there are three adult regulation fields designated for baseball. Soccer and basketball attract many Israelis. An abrupt, impatient and direct people, subject to emergency military activation with little notice, Israelis have little interest in the generational nuance and slow pace of baseball, as evidenced by the demise of the professional Israel Baseball League after one season in 2007. Of the 24 members on the 2021 Israel national baseball team, 20 were Americans who had recently acquired dual citizenship specifically to play in the Olympics. And several of them were the children of mixed marriages who grew up with little religious training. Reductionism, however, obscures the meaning of the Israel Olympic baseball team. 

Holtz, an American Jew with an extensive background playing and coaching baseball, had it right about his, the players’ and their fans’ motivation: “Just trying to make the world understand that Israel belongs here. This is not a fluke. Israel can play baseball.”

Two significant takeaways emerge from Israel’s quixotic Olympic baseball quest. One is that a group of American Jews, several slightly past their athletic prime and with day jobs outside baseball, chose to acquire dual Israeli citizenship, entailing travel to the Middle East, documentation of ethnic background, commitment of time and demanding travel in the age of COVID. The other key consideration relates to the heavy emotional investment American Jews, far more than Israelis, made in this Cinderella team. Many U.S. Jews came to view the ballplayers, attired in blue and white, standing for “Hatikvah,” and representing Israel while playing America’s national pastime, as standard bearers for their own experience. 

Although successful teams always jell, Team Israel reported a special instant bonding, closeness and identification amongst teammates. Team Israel clubhouse and bus conversations had a content, range, and depth the players had not previously encountered in their varied baseball journeys. Ranging from a silly video recording – that somehow went viral – of nine players jumping gleefully on a cardboard bed (soon to be recycled) to find out how many Israelis it could hold before collapsing to their serious resolve to identify as Jews even as the U.S. recorded a disturbing rise in antisemitic violence, the preceding, all of it, resonated deeply for American Jews. Jewish Americans cheered proudly and loudly for the team in pre-Olympic tune-up games in New York City, Long Island, Pomona and Hartford, and then rooted passionately in the medal competition. 

Ian Kinsler possessed Team Israel’s most impressive baseball pedigree. A four-time All-Star second baseman, he is one of the few players in MLB history to twice exceed both 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a season. A courageous role model, Kinsler, as a boy, awoke struggling for breath against asthma. At 39, beset by severe back and knee pain, Kinsler donned the blue and white to inspire young Israelis to take up baseball. In Israel, a smiling Kinsler posed in batting stance cocking a shofar. 

Fortified by coffee and noshing on bagels, American Jews gathered at 6 am around a large screen, courtesy of the American Zionist Movement, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to watch Team Israel’s first Olympic baseball game. An exuberant and attractive middle-aged woman, Adrienne Katz, stood, waving two Israeli flags. Despite her excitement, Katz expressed disappointment about the pandemic Olympic ban on spectators: “A mother should be at their kid’s Olympic game.” Her son, Alex, a former minor leaguer and Long Island native, pitched a scoreless inning. Herb Block, Zionist leader and event host, observed: “The Jewish people come back. We are resilient.”

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.